More bike legislation scuttled by Virginia lawmakers

Correction: A previous version of this article Mark Blacknell as president of the Washington Area Bicycle Association. He is president of the group’s board.

Virginia is for lovers, but it’s not always for bikes.

Thanks to a deadly combination of rural expanses and traffic-clogged suburbs, the state is behind many of its peers in making the roads safer for bicyclists. Political leaders from both parties pledged to catch up this year, in time for a 2015 international road race in Richmond. But while some gains have been made, advocates say a partisan fight appears to have derailed hopes for more.

In past years, House transportation subcommittee No. 2 is where bike legislation tended to run off the road. That was in large part because of former delegate John A. Cox, the onetime chairman of the panel and a longtime opponent of new road regulations for bikes. (He once said that a constituent had asked him to ban bikes completely on rural paths.)

Cox retired last year, and this session, a member of House Republican leadership, Del. Barbara J. Comstock (Fairfax), was behind a bill that would ban following a bike too closely. Virginia is one of the only states that do not protect cyclists under tailgating laws, Comstock said.

So advocates were flabbergasted when, having survived the rocky terrain of the lower chamber, the bill was passed over indefinitely in the Democratic-led Senate’s Transportation Committee.

“I was shocked. All of us were shocked,” said Mark Blacknell, president of the board of the Washington Area Bicycle Association. “This isn’t a culture-war issue, this isn’t about fiscal policy. This is really basic road safety.”

Republicans and Democrats stood on both sides of the vote.

Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), who chairs the Transportation Committee and voted to pass over Comstock’s bill, acknowledged that he may well have supported the same policy in the past three sessions. Nevertheless, he said, “you always have to reserve the right to be smarter than you were the day before.” He was swayed, he added, not by politics but by concerns from state police that the measure would have been difficult to enforce.

“We think it’s a red herring,” Tom Bowden, the board chairman of Bike Virginia, said of the enforceability issue. “There’s no reason a police officer can’t make a decision about reasonableness and prudence, the same decision they have to make with regards to a car following a car.”

The goal is not a wave of citations for tailgating, cyclists said, but a way to find wrongdoing when a car hits the back of a bicycle. Police are often reluctant to charge reckless driving, and without the new law, “it’s one less argument that a cyclist’s attorney could use,” said Bruce Wright of Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling.

A separate proposal from Sen. Bryce E. Reeves (R-Spotsylvania), to increase the minimum clearance between cars and bicycles from two to three feet, fared better. It passed the Senate in January and the House on Wednesday.

Comstock, who is running for the congressional seat being vacated by Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R), has opposed pro-bike legislation in the past. She said she’s been working with the biking community and they had addressed her concerns.

A third bill, which would fine drivers who don’t wait for traffic to pass before opening their doors, was quashed in the same House transportation subcommittee that had stalled so many bike bills before.

Both advocates and lawmakers say a mix of culture clash (in rural areas) and road rage (in suburbs and cities) is to blame for the legislature’s inaction on the issue.

“I think people don’t want to admit that they’re impatient drivers,” said Reeves, a recreational mountain biker. He said getting the state in line with the rest of the country would be a boon for tourism dollars, especially during the UCI Road World Championships next year.

The Virginia Department of Transportation, Comstock said, has tried and failed to get the state a “Bicycle Friendly” rating from the League of American Bicyclists.

Sometimes minds change in other ways. When the third bill came up in the Senate, Sen. John A. Cosgrove Jr. (R-Chesapeake) said he’d normally vote against it. However, a friend had just been hit by a pickup truck with large mirrors, he said. “Because of that incident, I think this year I would support this bill.”

Rachel Weiner covers cops and courts in Arlington and Alexandria.
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